DARWIN, Australia — The F-35 fighter jet is making its debut at the multinational Pitch Black exercise in Australia, with U.S. Marine Corps “B” variants participating in drills there in the lead-up to the main event.
The 12 F-35B short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing aircraft were practicing the Corps’ concept known as “Expeditionary Advanced Basing Operations” at RAAF Base Curtin, according to Lt. Col. Richard Behrmann, an operations officer at Marine Aircraft Group 12 based in Iwakuni, Japan.
The F-35Bs have been deployed to RAAF Base Tindal, 600 miles away from Curtin, since mid-August for “robust” unit-level training ahead of Pitch Black, a military exercise involving more than 2,500 personnel and aircraft from 10 nations.
Behrmann told Defense News on Friday that the EABO training in Australia was a culmination of several MAG-12 events meant to refine the concept. One of those events included using Tindal as a hub and Curtin as a spoke in order to mirror EABO’s hub-and-spoke model, with the officer calling it the unit’s most “robust and in-depth” exercise of the concept.
EABO envisages the Marines being able to deploy mobile, easily sustainable expeditionary forces to austere, temporary locations in or near contested areas to conduct missions such as sea denial or sea control.
RAAF Base Curtin, which locals call a front-line “bare base,” has a 10,000-foot runway, aircraft shelters and other infrastructure, which are normally crewed and maintained by a small caretaker staff, unless activated for use during exercises or a crisis.
The 12 F-35Bs from Marine Fighter Attack squadrons 121 and 242 are also Down Under to drill with other MAG-12 subordinate units — Marine Wing Support Squadron 171 and Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 12.
A pair of Japan-based Marine Corps KC-130J Super Hercules tankers, which also performed transport tasks and rapid ground refueling, supported the F-35Bs during the EABO training.
The U.S. air and ground elements that deployed to Australia included some 150 fighter squadron personnel and 60 members from support units who mirrored the Marine Corps’ air-ground task force concept, which seeks to provide multidomain capabilities
Behrmann also said the F-35s deployed to Australia with the Autonomic Logistics Information System, which is used for predictive maintenance of the aircraft. He noted that Marines used a very small aperture terminal — essentially a ground station with a satellite dish — to transmit data for ALIS.
MAG-12 also put into place a so-called PACE plan — primary, alternate, contingency and emergency — that allowed the force to transmit data and voice communications between Iwakuni, Tindal and Curtin using high-frequency radio during the EABO exercise.
Behrmann noted that out of the F-35Bs and other supporting platforms, only one aircraft dropped out of an assigned sortie during the preceding three weeks of the deployment.
During Pitch Black, which runs Aug. 19-Sept. 8, American F-35Bs and Australian F-35As flew air-to-air and air-to-ground missions during the day and night as part of large-force employment operations with a variety of aircraft from other partner nations, including F-15, F-16 and Su-30 fighters.
Behrmann said these exercises enhance interoperability and integration capabilities with allied and partner nations in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, adding that a large airspace was set aside for the drills.
The Marine Corps’ F-35Bs took part in midair refueling with multirole tanker/transport aircraft from Australia, Singapore and the United Kingdom. And the Corps’ KC-130J tankers refueled British Eurofighter Typhoon fighters.
This year’s Pitch Black has also served as an opportunity for partner nations to observe the F-35B up close and in action, with the Marine Corps hosting delegations from partner nations, including one from Singapore’s next-generation fighter project office.
Singapore has selected the F-35B as its next-gen fighter, and the U.S. State Department has already cleared the sale for an initial four aircraft with an option to buy eight more. Initial deliveries are expected to begin in 2026.
A Royal Australian Air Force website said Pitch Black involves 17 nations: Australia, France, Germany, Indonesia, India, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, the U.K., the Philippines, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, the Netherlands, Malaysia, New Zealand and the U.S.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.